Hunched and squinting into wind-driven rain, trudging wearily up a potholed tarmac slope, Wakefield greets me with the sight of a derelict pub – what would once have been a haven of warmth now adding to the forbidding air of a jumble of low-cost flats joined by cracked paving.
The walk into the centre of town yields little to lift the weary traveller’s spirits. It is early evening and the streets are all-but deserted, metal shutters rolled down over many of the storefronts. Of the shops unguarded, I have never seen a higher proportion of pound shops and pawnbrokers. The first pedestrians that I meet are an elderly couple emerging from the door of a betting shop, tracksuit trousers and quilted jackets flapping as they simultaneously cup hands to their faces, trying to ignite cigarettes.
Litter spirals down the pedestrianised streets in the centre of town, the noise of the wind frequently overwritten with the harsh squeal of sirens. I trudge on in search of a place to eat. So far the only open places that I have passed are brightly lit pubs sparsely yet forbiddingly populated and a MacDonald’s, homogeneous fluorescent hell, slumped figures ruminating vacantly. I head further out in search of choice. I pass a restaurant called the Cow Shed; a glance in through the window suggests that the food is appreciated by the locals far more than is irony.
My mood is darkening as I find a tapas bar called Qubana. There’s something about sitting on your own in a restaurant that invites morbid introspection. The establishment is quiet which makes the cheery Latin jazz – unobtrusively though the volume is set – oddly unsuited to the mood of the place. My waitress is a slight girl, demurely pretty, dusky skinned and dark of eye. I am expecting a trace of Spanish inflection when “Table fer one, chuck?” emerges through a friendly smile. The North is immediately less grim. The food is excellent, the beer cold, the welcome warm. As I settle the bill the manager, an Irishman, asks me if I’m here for business (he fails to extend the enquiry to the idea that I might be here for pleasure, I note with an internal smile). I tell him I’m here to see a friend’s band play and he asks me where. New to the town, he calls a colleague over, a local lad, uneven stubble wrapped around a face shaped by frequent smiles and a rapidfire blink behind think-framed glasses, who directs me back through the town centre to Fernandes, the evening’s venue.
My spirits lifted, I decide to make the effort to see Wakefield through less judgemental eyes. I find myself paying more attention to the splendid church that graces the centre of the town; the surrounding trees lit with delicately arranged stings of white lights. Cutting across the back of the pedestrianised main drag, I pass high-rise flats, often some of the most forbidding accommodation that city centres have to display. These, though, have been renovated recently, cheerfully painted. On closer inspection the grounds and the cars parked beneath boast pride in their upkeep.
Fernandes is sufficiently well-hidden from the beaten track to suggest that it may hide more than a few dark secrets. In fact, the venue turns out to be a delight. Downstairs, where the band set up, a continental beer bar. Upstairs, ten authentic ales grace a warm, comfortable saloon where almost imperceptibly quiet blues is almost obscured by a buzz of warm conversation. I locate Doug and we catch up briefly before I take my seat for the evening’s entertainment. The Revelator Band are playing for the birthday of the singer’s father.
The best blues finds voice in life’s darker side – celebrating strength and defiance in the face of adversity. Never more appropriately than now; I learn from the performance that the man whose birthday we have gathered to celebrate has a brain tumour. He is unlikely to see another such anniversary. In the interval, the man of the hour says a few words. He is smiling, clutching a beer, wishing us all good cheer and a good night. “If you’re afraid to die,” he says, “you end up afraid to live. Enjoy yourselves.” The rest of the evening is a marvel; fine ale, music, a superb and moving rendition of ‘Tom Traubert’s Blues’, good food and good company.
I return to Doug’s place to drink single malt whiskey and talk nonsense long into the early hours, his unfailing ability to make me laugh an all-too infrequent joy. Finally, a lasting smile etched on to my features, I settle onto a familiar inflatable mattress for a few hours of bouncy but sound sleep.
I can’t recommend it as a tourist spot but, beneath the grim patina of Wakefield there’s beauty and joy to be found if you’re willing to overlook your first impressions and make an effort. Beyond the dread spectre of a death sentence, too, there’s much to celebrate; surrounded by friends and family, serenaded with great music and taking everything that you can from the moment. A fine reminder for me.